Griffith John was born in Swansea, Wales on December 14, 1831. His mother died when he was eight months old.
At the age of eight he was admitted to the membership of the Congregationalist Ebenezer Chapel, and by the age of 16 he was known as “the boy preacher”, having first preached at a prayer meeting at age 14, then regularly preaching from age 16.
With a desire to serve the Lord in Madagascar he applied to the London Missionary Society in 1850, and they accepted him – for China!
He was ordained in 1855. That same year he married the daughter of a missionary, Jane Griffith. The couple arrived in Shanghai in September 1855 and from 1861 made their permanent base in Hankow, central China. It was here that John established his reputation as author and translator and as a powerful preacher. He set up schools, hospitals and training colleges. Griffith John’s missionary work in China lasted for 57 years.
He founded the Religious Tract Society in Hankow, and literally millions of copies of the Scriptures were distributed during his lifetime. He was a prolific author and pamphleteer.
“The first Protestant convert in central China was baptized at Hankow in March, 1862” (Griffith John, by C. Irwin, page 19). By 1905 the church membership in that city had grown to 6,500.
Griffith John established a medical work, itinerated thousands of miles to other towns and villages, and translated the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament Scriptures into Mandarin and Wenli.
Many a time he faced bitter opposition, not only from rebel Chinese – “kill the foreign devil!” – but also from the “Times” newspaper in England, which accused missionaries of “provoking the men of this world”. This outburst even led to a Member of Parliament condemning missionary activity, and the London Missionary Society instructed Griffith John to withdraw from central China to one of the ‘treaty ports’, where churches were already established. “Griffith John protested so vigorously the LMS Directors cancelled their instructions!” (page 24).
John also found opposition for his Mandarin Bible, by the man who helped create the Peking Bible. He attacked John’s facility with Greek and Hebrew, but lost out to the intentions of the British and Foreign Bible Society. The Peking Bible had been a collaboration of American and British translators, but since its time the two nations had become competitive in their endeavours, rather than cooperative.
After the death of his first wife, Jane, in 1873, Mr John married the widow of Dr Jenkins in 1874.
With his colleagues he established over 100 mission stations in Hupeh and Hunan. He acquired an intimate knowledge of the Chinese language and literature.
Not only did the Chinese Government hold him in high honour, but the Congregational Union of England and Wales elected him as Chairman in 1888, and the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him a DD degree (1889) in recognition of his work in China. A “Griffith John College” was also established in the Yangtsze valley, for native preachers.
In 1911 his health finally gave way at it was in Swansea, Wales, where he had come to know the Lord as his Saviour that he was laid to rest. He passed into his Saviour’s presence on 25 July, 1912.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com